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Missoula Business Owner Finds Success in UM’s MBA Program

MISSOULA – In early 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to make people feel isolated, University of Montana alumna Syann Stevens created a platform to connect residents, businesses and organizations across Missoula.

Stevens founded TAPMissoula, a local social-media hub that offers a safe, virtual space for individuals, existing networks and community groups to stay connected. The online hub helped people promote their books, art shows and yard sales, among other activities and interests.

A year later, Stevens wanted to evolve TAPMissoula beyond the pandemic and have the platform continue to foster connections in her hometown. She enrolled in the Master of Business Administration program at UM’s College of Business to develop new entrepreneurial skills and support her company. Stevens is now finishing her third year in the MBA program.

“Being in the program has really helped me narrow down and focus on what it is we are providing and who we are providing it for,” she said. “Those questions are not easy to answer. The framework that the MBA program offers has really helped clarify that.”

Paul Gladen, associate vice president for research and economic development at UM, was an adjunct professor when Stevens began the MBA program.

Gladen said he enjoys teaching MBA students, like Stevens, who already have established businesses and bring that experience into the classroom.

Born and raised in Missoula, Stevens earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in dance and choreography from UM in 2004 and moved to Los Angeles, where she joined the SAG-AFTRA union after doing stunt work for CSI:NY, traveled globally in the tech industry and taught yoga and guided meditation at companies in Silicon Beach. She co-founded a company, JSJ International Inc. in 2011 and TAPMissoula is a product of that company.

Gladen, who taught an entrepreneurship and real-world class, said he admired Stevens’ entrepreneurial experience and willingness to learn more in the program.

“Our view is that an entrepreneurial mindset is increasingly valuable in today’s world of work,” Gladen said. “When you see AI and robotics and all the mundane business tasks that can be automated, the real question is how do you innovate? That’s a lot of what we are trying to focus on. How is a business actually solving a problem and what could you do differently?”

Through the MBA program, Stevens received valuable feedback for TAPMissoula. She also had opportunities to add resources to her business through UM’s Blackstone LaunchPad, a nonprofit organization supported by the Blackstone Charitable Foundation that is focused on helping students build entrepreneurial skills in their careers.

Blackstone LaunchPad connected Stevens with a Future Founders fellowship last summer, where she was awarded funding and an opportunity to hone her pitching skills in front of the Blackstone team.

Sarah Truglio, manager of UM Blackstone LaunchPad, said Stevens was chosen to participate in the summer fellowship out of hundreds of applicants across the nation. Her proposal showcased her keen business acumen, and clear understanding of market dynamics, customer needs and competitive landscapes, Truglio said.

“I had the privilege of working closely with Syann throughout the fellowship, and her proposal stood out for its innovative approach, strategic vision and tangible impact,” Truglio said. “Her positive attitude, professionalism and strong work ethic made her a pleasure to collaborate with, inspiring her peers and mentors alike.”

The summer fellowship came with funding that Stevens used to revamp the TAPMissoula website and create an engaging video that welcomes new visitors to the platform.

Before it’s hard launch this month, TAPMissoula had already grown to 500 members, including the Hellgate Venture Network, Ghanaian International Students peer group and Cambium Place apartment complex. Each group uses the platform to create connections and engage together beyond regular meetings and events.

In contrast to larger social media networks, TAPMissoula uses a bottom-up approach. Individuals within the community are the ones operating the social network. And by keeping the content local, users feel more invested and their reputation capital keeps the platform cleaner with less content pollution, Stevens said. Forums also are moderated, and groups have designated administrators.

“We believe the community members directly impacted by social media should be operating those platforms,” Stevens said.

Stevens’ vision for TAPMissoula is to franchise the concept into other cities across Montana, creating platforms such as TAPBozeman and TAPWhitefish. In addition, Stevens has future plans to establish a physical space for members to host pop-up events and highlight their talents.

Taking these next steps in her business are a result of the opportunities and support from the MBA program, she said.

“The classes have validated my experience of starting a business on my own,” Stevens said. “They have also brought invaluable insight, direction and clarity.”

By Kyle Spurr, UM News Service

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